The Butcher of the ForestGenres: Fantasy Pages:
At the northern edge of a land ruled by a monstrous, foreign tyrant lies the wild forest known as the Elmever. The villagers know better than to let their children go near—once someone goes in, they never come back out.
No one knows the strange and terrifying traps of the Elmever better than Veris Thorn, the only person to ever rescue a child from the forest many years ago. When the Tyrant’s two young children go missing, Veris is commanded to enter the forest once more and bring them home safe.
Received to review via Netgalley
The main character of this novella, Veris, once went into the forest to save a child. It’s no ordinary forest, and her journey is the only time anyone has been known to be successful in entering and leaving the forest, let alone bringing a lost child back. When the local Tyrant’s children go missing, he has her brought to him: she must go and retrieve his children, or he will kill her family.
Well, what choice does she have? It’s an interesting set-up, since she’s a middle-aged protagonist, and she’s full of aches and pains as she makes her way into the forest — and she’s no great witch, holds no great power to find her way, just a bit of knowledge and some luck. And the luck’s tenuous.
It’s a genuinely creepy story in that tense sort of way, with a lot of blank spots at the edge of the canvas of things we don’t really get to see/understand. The focus is on Veris’ journey, and her efforts to find the children, despite the sense that there’s so much more going on.
I found it enjoyable, though I’m still sort of letting it settle.
These Lifeless Things, Premee Mohamed
Wow, this was unsettling. There’s so little concrete detail, either about Eva’s side of the story or about Emerson’s present — there’s very little that’s concrete beyond the constant fear and horror. Even when there are clear images of the statues, there’s no explanation, no reason for what’s happening. The monsters you can’t quite see, and all the more terrifying for it.
There are little hints in Emerson’s end of the story that something’s still wrong: her paranoia, the ringing in her ears, the nightmares… And we just don’t get to know how Eva’s story ends, what happens between her attempted escape and Emerson’s work trying to find out what happened to her. We just don’t know.
It’s beautifully written, and there’s plenty to keep holding onto even while you don’t know what’s happening — Eva’s feelings for Valentin, and their search through the city for the children, their careful work to survive — so I’m not actually saying that it doesn’t work. But it’s hard to describe and I feel like I’m trying to explain the tatters of a nightmare to someone: it sounds so ordinary, repeating it back, but quite different when you’re in the grips of it.
It was perhaps especially unsettling now, given the setting is Ukraine. The haunted, war-torn streets and the desperation.
I think it’s a worthwhile read; I think others might find it unsatisfying, but I think this feeling is exactly what you’re meant to be left with.
The Annual Migration of Clouds, Premee Mohamed
Premee Mohamed’s writing is beautiful, as I found when reading The Apple-Tree Throne, and I think this novella punches above its weight in terms of the page count. She builds up a whole post-apocalyptic world — a world ruined by climate change, epidemics, and one particular pandemic, a nerve-invading, mind-controlling fungus which can affect its host in a bunch of different ways (from screaming in pain as it invades every organ, to preventing them from taking risks by causing all their muscles to lock, and all sorts of things in between).
It’s very much a book of the last year or two, one that takes a lot of our current worries and preoccupations and reactions and makes a world that reflects them back and elaborates them. The anger at the people who lived so decadently, so freely; the fear of a disease that is not fully understood, cannot be fought; but also the way that some people do manage to live together, work together, make the New Normal work.
It’s both a sad and a hopeful story, and Reid is a pretty ordinary messed up human who loves her mother and says awful things to her, loves her best friend and also gets really mad about his flaws and then immediately turns to him when she’s in trouble. She’s also in the grips of a disease that limits her, which she rages against, and sometimes (sometimes) manages to overcome.
I loved the relationships between Henryk and Reid, and between Reid and her mother, and the delicate web of relationships you see around them — everyone relying on everyone else, because the world’s against them now. And I really liked the ending, which felt hard-won.
The Apple-Tree Throne, Premee Mohamed
This is a strange little ghost story: Braddock returns from war after his commanding officer got most of his unit killed, and was himself killed. Braddock isn’t sure why he survived, what purpose he has now, or where to go: being drafted saved him, gave him purpose, and without that he’s drifting. He speaks at his commanding officer’s funeral and is almost adopted by his parents, slowly being sucked into his place — attending church with them, courting his fiancée…
And all this while, his commanding officer is haunting him. Sometimes angry, sometimes kind, sometimes incoherent, but always there. The ghost of his commanding officer, and the awful pain in his leg (which seems to have already healed).
All of this is set in an alternate history which we only get little glimpses of, and which I’d be curious to explore more of.
It was difficult to see where this is going, and I almost expected it to become way creepier, and to think way less of Braddock than I eventually did. The last page or so sounds a very wistful, bittersweet note. I found it a really interesting setup, beautifully written, and I’m definitely curious to read more of Premee Mohamed’s work.